Considering Study Abroad in Oxford and Cambridge

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Jul 7, 2011

The Universities of Cambridge and Oxford are among the oldest universities in the world and among the largest in the United Kingdom. Both have worldwide reputations for outstanding academics and original research.

In general, Oxford and Cambridge universities prefer to accept full-year visiting students who demonstrate exceptional motivation and enthusiasm for their major subjects. Visiting student applicants must have a solid foundation in their majors, a strong grade-point average (GPA) — 3.5 or higher — and they must already have completed two years of study at their own universities.

At most colleges, you're allowed to study in only one department (your major) during your time at Cambridge or Oxford, or no more than two. Cambridge tends to restrict students to one subject more often than Oxford. This limitation may cause difficulties for students with plans for completing more than one major at their home universities, so be careful. Oxford offers a number of combined courses, or joint schools, as they are often called. They allow you to choose areas that interest you from two different disciplines, sometimes across arts and sciences, such as physics and philosophy. If you are a double major in, for example, English and biology, you probably will have to choose study in just one of those subjects.

Oxford and Cambridge are on trimester schedules. The first term, which is known as Michaelmas, runs from the beginning of October until the first or second week of December. The second term, known as Hilary (at Oxford) or Lent (at Cambridge), runs from the beginning of January until Easter. Third term, Trinity (at Oxford) or Easter (at Cambridge), which is slightly shorter than the first two terms, runs from after Easter until mid-June. The third term is primarily for studying and exams, but because visiting students don't take degree exams, they spend the third term taking tutorials, just as they would in the previous two terms.

Understanding the university structure

The structure of the undergraduate education system at Oxford and Cambridge is different than that of undergraduate institutions in the U.S. and even other British universities. The university handles administrative duties such as defining academic standards and degree requirements and maintaining facilities.

The college is another thing entirely: Imagine that at your current university, you live, eat, study, go to class, and have access to a library all within your dorm. You don't have to leave your dorm to go to class, unless you wanted to hear a large lecture or go to a sporting event. That's what a college is at Oxford and Cambridge.

The college is the center of university life at Oxford and Cambridge. Students live, study, and socialize within their own colleges. The many small colleges, with between 200 and 700 students, make up the larger university. Oxford has 30 undergraduate colleges, and 6 private halls that were founded by different Christian denominations and still retain a religious character. Cambridge has 31 colleges, three of which are for women and two that are exclusively for graduate students. When applying to Oxford or Cambridge, students are admitted to a college and are members of the university by default.

If you're attending a women's college, you still can eat and attend social events at any other colleges. The colleges tend to be located fairly close to each other. Going to a women's college doesn't mean that you'll have a single-sex educational experience. Your experience still will be coed.

College communities include undergraduate and postgraduate students, teachers, and lecturers. Students attend tutorials within their colleges. Each college has libraries, computers, common rooms, and academic and personal support. They provide recreational activities, including entertainment, sports, music, drama, and other special events.

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